NewsDec 6, 2017

Faculty invention aids visually impaired

Fernando Albertorio’s wearable smartband uses sonar to alert people to objects in their vicinity

“I personally don’t believe that we should label any person as disabled. What I believe is that we have broken environments and that we can solve these with technologies.”

Legally blind, faculty member Fernando Albertorio has spent his life creating “hacks” to make our “broken environments” more accessible.

Trained as a chemist, the self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur now develops products that help those with physical and mental challenges navigate the world, starting with a product that aids people with low or no sight.

Albertorio, who designed Lesley’s user experience research methods course, is the co-creator, co-founder and a user of Sunu, a wearable smartband that uses sonar to alert people to objects in their vicinity, giving off gentle pulses that speed up as they approach an object.

While it doesn’t replace a guide dog or a cane, Sunu helps lessen accidents to the head and chest.

A closeup of the Sunu band on a wrist.
The Sunu band gives off gentle vibrations as the wearer approaches objects.

“Some of our users tell us that the Sunu band has reduced over 90 percent of the accidents that happen every month,” says Albertorio, who teaches in Lesley’s College of Art and Design. “It’s enabling them to move about their space more confidently and with less stress.”

As Albertorio teaches his students, user feedback must be a critical component in developing a product like Sunu and its accompanying app. User experience (UX) is a growing field that invites users into the design process, from the initial concept, through prototypes and to the final product.

“We’re seeing that a lot of wearables basically get chucked in the drawer after a month or so,” he says. “To get adoption, you have to really understand how users interact with the product, how it’s working and how its providing value for them.”

Sunu has been tested by students at the Perkins School for the Blind and at a school for the blind in Guadalajara, Mexico, and by Albertorio himself.

Last spring, he even wore the band to navigate a 5K in Boston.

In addition to praise from Perkins and the National Federation for the Blind, the first two small product runs sold out, as did the official launch in October. Currently on backorder, Sunu’s early success confirms Albertorio’s commitment to a quality user experience.

Portrait of Fernando Albertorio.

“I’m very obsessed about user experience. I believe it’s very important and integral to the design process and product development.”

— Fernando Albertorio

User-focused design

A native of Puerto Rico, Albertorio worked as a chemist for many years, including a stint with the U.S. government, but his interest in product design led him out of the lab. In 2014, he shifted his focus to the growing field of user experience (UX).

“I found that my real talent was in enabling people,” he says.

Albertorio notes that many well-intentioned designs simply don’t work for the user.

“Sometimes people are developing products with no clear picture of who is going to be using the product, and how they’re going to be learning how to use it and integrating it into their everyday life,” explains Albertorio.

With his course on user experience research methods at Lesley, Albertorio is taking students through the same process he used to develop Sunu, such as convening focus groups and performing A/B testing on particular features.

“I’m very obsessed about user experience,” he says. “I believe it’s very important and integral to the design process and product development.”

Albertorio has much more UX design in his future. He and his partners have five technologies in the pipeline aimed at assisting people of different abilities, whether it’s to aid with hearing, mobility or cognition. 

“I’m very passionate about creating technologies that close the gap,” he said, “that empower individuals to be independent.”

Read more about Lesley’s UX coursework.

Seniors and students collaborate in user design class.
May 18, 2017
Students and senior citizens collaborate on creative solutions